The Long, Tortured Road to Biden’s Clash With Netanyahu Over Gaza War

President Biden laid it out for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel long before letting the public know. In a conversation bristling with tension on Feb. 11, the president warned the prime minister against a major assault on the Gaza city of Rafah — and suggested that continued U.S. support would depend on how Israel proceeded.

It was an extraordinary moment. For the first time, the president who had so strongly backed Israel’s war against Hamas was essentially threatening to change course. The White House, however, kept the threat secret, making no mention of it in the official statement it released about the call. And indeed, the private warning, perhaps too subtle, fell on deaf ears.

Six days later, on Feb. 17, Mr. Biden heard from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. The president’s chief diplomat was calling from his blue-and-white government plane as he was flying home from a security conference in Munich. Despite the president’s warning, Mr. Blinken reported that momentum for an invasion of Rafah was building. It could result in a humanitarian catastrophe, he feared. They had to draw a line.

At that point, the president headed down a road that would lead to the most serious collision between the United States and Israel in a generation. Three months later, the president has decided to follow through on his warning, leaving the two sides in a dramatic standoff. Mr. Biden has paused a shipment of 3,500 bombs and vowed to block the delivery of other offensive arms if Israel mounts a full-scale ground invasion of Rafah over his objections. Mr. Netanyahu responded defiantly, vowing to act even “if we need to stand alone.”

Mr. Biden’s journey to this moment of confrontation has been a long and tortured one, the culmination of a seven-month evolution — from a president who was so appalled by the Hamas-led terrorist attack on Oct. 7 that he pledged “rock solid and unwavering” support for Israel to an angry and exasperated president who has finally had it with an Israeli leadership that he believes is not listening to him.

“He has just gotten to a point where enough is enough,” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a onetime Republican senator from Nebraska and a friend of Mr. Biden’s from their days together in Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration. “I think he felt he had to say something. He had to do something. He had to show some sign that he wasn’t going to continue this.”

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